The Alcuin Society honours Will Rueter and The Aliquando Press

The Alcuin Society gave its sixth annual Robert R. Reid Award and Medal for lifetime achievement in the book arts to Will Rueter—teacher, printmaker, bookbinder, graphic designer, one-time senior designer at the University of Toronto Press, and founder of The Aliquando Press, a private press based in Dundas, Ontario. To celebrate this honour, the Alcuin Society invited Rueter and fellow private press owner Rollin Milroy (of Heavenly Monkey) to sit down for an informal interview and chat.

To kick off the evening, Alcuin board member Ralph Stanton acknowledged Leah Gordon, who helped organize the event, as well as special guests in the audience—patron Yosef Wosk; Don McLeod, editor of The Devil’s Artisan magazine; Stan Bevington of Coach House Press; typographer Rod McDonald; Chester and Camilla Gryski of Toronto; and of course Will Rueter himself. Stanton introduced Rueter, a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, who established The Aliquando Press in 1963 and has published over one hundred books and broadsheets, as well as interviewer Rollin Milroy, who, through Heavenly Monkey, has published about three dozen books, the archives of which are housed in Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC Library.

Milroy began his interview by asking Rueter about his background; as it turns out, Rueter’s family has a long history in the book arts. His grandfather’s brother was a Dutch artist who created patterned papers, some of which found its way into Rueter’s Majesty, Order and Beauty: Selections from the Journals of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. Rueter’s father was a printmaker as well, although because his parents were divorced, Rueter never got a chance to see his father’s private press.

He travelled to Europe to meet his Dutch family in 1960, and he lived in London for ten months. “I had no money but was able to find a small job and soak up whatever I could,” he said. When he got the opportunity to see the Book of Kells, which was being exhibited at the Royal Academy on loan from Ireland, he became excited about the physical properties of the book.

Rueter returned to Canada, where he worked for while in a bookstore and discovered the work of Frank Newfeld. He became inspired to be a book designer and wanted to be able to do everything himself. The hurdle, Rueter explained, was that he knew nothing about making books.

Rueter bought a tabletop press and, under the mentorship of Stan Bevington, began to design and print. It was an exciting time for typography in Ontario, said Rueter: advertising design was strong, and that aesthetic seeped out into book design. Private presses were experimenting with exciting ways of presenting information, poetry, and essays. With the encouragement of designer and typographer Leslie (Sam) Smart, Rueter returned to Europe in 1968 and spent three months reading, looking at time, and visiting the Monotype Works. When he returned to Canada, he had no job, and he applied for a graphic design position at the University of Toronto Press.

Milroy asked if Rueter was interested in publishing generally or in academic publishing specifically. Rueter replied that he would have been happy with any job in publishing but he was lucky to have ended up at the University of Toronto Press, saying that his boss, Allan Fleming, gave him an awful lot of confidence. Rueter noted that scholarly publishing pushed him to find creative ways of tackling what he called “the minutiae of scholarly design”—the bits and pieces including footnotes, block quotes, tables, charts, and images—and he adapted many of those ideas to his work at The Aliquando Press, which occupied his evenings and weekends.

Rueter told us that he and Jim Rimmer shared a mentor in Paul Duensing. Duensing loved monotype machines and designed and cast his own type. He owned his own foundry and was in the unique position of being a one-man shop. Through Duensing, Rueter met Leonard Bahr of Adagio Press. Bahr, said Rueter, was a type-A personality—“He was once hospitalized because he found a typo in a book he’d just printed,” Rueter said, prompting raucous laughter. “He was totally passionate about type and books.” Bahr had wanted to write a book on private printing and even set some of it in type, but he never completed it. Miraculously, Rueter said, he’d kept Bahr’s galley proofs, and on the fiftieth anniversary of The Aliquando Press, Rueter printed Pressing Matters, a book in Bahr’s honour. Bahr’s first two chapters became the first two essays of the book; Bahr had written an outline for the subsequent chapters but hadn’t gotten any further. Pressing Matters also included correspondence from Paul Duensing and a contribution about the economics of the private press publishing from Rollin Milroy. Rueter contributed an afterword, “Printing Is Pleasure,” about the state of the private press today.

“What about the future?” Rollin Milroy asked. “I can’t make any prognostications,” Rueter answered, adding that he hopes the private press will continue to exist even if technological changes mean that the physical book may not exist at a commercial scale. “I can’t imagine not having a private press,” said Rueter, explaining that he feels he’s been able to hide behind the press—that the discipline of making books has forged his sense of self and has been a kind of salvation for him. He hopes that in the future we uphold “the importance of the text—always the text—because that’s what we work for.”

Milroy showed some examples of Rueter’s hand lettering, asking, “Do you think it’s important for people interested in the graphic arts to render letters by hand?”

“Absolutely,” answered Rueter. “It’s important to appreciate the subtlety of letterforms,” as well as the relationships between them. He mentioned that he’d tried to design his own typeface, but it was clunky and just didn’t work. “Letterforms are not necessarily type,” he elaborated. They have their own rules and disciplines when they become type.”

Rollin Milroy mentioned that he and Rueter both shared a strong interest in music, as well as a desire to express that interest through printing and books. “Why do you see these two media overlapping?” Rueter admitted that he has great difficulty with music and that he can’t read it. But he says he can’t print without music. “Letterpress printing and private printing have a kind of parallel relationship with early music,” he said. Whereas a piano is refined, he explained, earlier instruments such as harpsichords and lutes have a kind of tension; you get sour notes if they are not well tuned, much like a letterpress.

How, asked Milroy, does someone wanting to create their own press today get started? “Talk to anyone who’s actually printing,” said Rueter. “Read the classics.” He recommended several titles, including

  • D.B. Updike’s Printing Types
  • Just My Type by Simon Garfield
  • The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree
  • Letterpress Now by Jessica White

“Be devoted to printing, want to learn,” said Rueter. “There is no money to be made, but you can have a lot of fun.” He added that one of the joys of letterpress these days is the flexibility to experiment offered by polymer plates.

Milroy asked Rueter which of his own books were his favourite. Rueter mentioned the following:

  • The Articulation of Time, a book he printed twenty years ago, “the first time I really became aware of my own mortality,” he said. The book features a lot of quotations and poetry that had meaning to him at the time.
  • Diary of an Amaryllis, which features colour reproductions of drawings by Rueter’s wife, who illustrated the life cycle of an amaryllis plant.
  • Majesty, Order and Beauty, the diary of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson. Rueter described Sanderson (1840–1922) as “one of the most complex people. He started life as a barrister but then became the best bookbinder of the nineteenth century. He wrote journals and was an important figure in the early fine-press movement.”

“Private printers do work in very strange ways,” Rueter said. He offered a quote from Henry James, saying “He’s talking about writing, but I think it says a lot about private printing and its frustrations: ‘We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we can… The rest is madness of art.”

The evening ended with a tribute from last year’s Robert R. Reid recipient, Stan Bevington, who said of Rueter’s work, “Every letter has been picked up by hand. And his choice of paper is exquisite… As a designer at the University of Toronto Press, the largest university press in Canada, Will Rueter made a great contribution to setting high standards for commercial printing.” At Aliquando, Bevington added, Rueter is involved in every aspect: selecting texts, editing, designing, writing, illustrating, setting type, and printing. He has come a long way from his first book, A Bach Fugue, which Rueter derided as having “derivative design and poor inking” to the impressive opus of Majesty, Order and Beauty, which was his hundredth publication.

Each of the audience members got to go home with a special keepsake—a gorgeously printed and incisive quote from Latin grammarian Terentianus: “Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli”—or “The fate of books depends on the capacity of the reader.”

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